FOXBOROUGH – Bad signs? The Bills haven’t won here since 2000. They haven’t won the second meeting of the season against the Patriots since ’99. The Pats haven’t lost a game in the second half of the regular season in three years. The Bills haven’t won a truly meaningful road game in forever.
But do you want to hear something that will really depress you? And no, it’s not about the defense. In five road games this season, Ryan Fitzpatrick has not completed a 30-yard pass to a wide receiver. Not one.
Fitzpatrick is averaging 5.72 yards an attempt on the road this year. That would put him at the bottom of the NFL, below even Blaine Gabbert of the Jaguars. We knew he couldn’t throw down the field, and that opposing defenses were catching on to him. The fact is, it’s getting worse.
So it’s really no surprise that Buddy Nix, the general manager, has been talking about the need for a quarterback. Two weeks ago, Nix said he wanted to have a franchise guy in place before he left Buffalo. Last Friday, on his weekly radio segment on WGR, he was even more direct.
“Let me be as honest as I can,” Nix said. “I think we really need to address it this year.”
So evidently, Nix has seen enough. Barely one year after signing Fitzpatrick to a six-year, $59 million contract, Nix is looking to move on. As you might imagine, this doesn’t sit well with the man now occupying the position.
Fitz spoke with his general manager on the day Nix said he didn’t want to leave his job until the Bills had a franchise QB in place.
“I walked by his office and he called me in and we talked,” Fitzpatrick said.
“He said, ‘Look, this is what I said. I’m not saying that you’re not our guy or whatever.’ ”
Of course, that’s precisely what Nix is saying. He and coach Chan Gailey can affirm their belief in Fitz. They can pay him like a franchise guy. But like everyone else, they see his limitations, and they know the Bills need to find a gifted young guy who can make all the big throws and help get them to the next level.
It’s also a little too convenient and self-serving. Nix says he has upgraded the overall talent on the roster, making it easier to trade up in the draft. Never mind that he has put together one of the worst defenses in NFL history, or that his receiving corps is weak, or that his coaches don’t have any real answers.
The real problem is the quarterback!
It’s hard to argue. Sure, Fitz rates around the middle of NFL quarterbacks. But the eyeball test tells you the real story. He can’t make the big throws that separate the mediocre QBs from the elite ones. Today will be his 48th game as a Bill, the equivalent of three full seasons.
Fitzpatrick was asked, point-blank, if he had any fear that time might be running out for him.
“I mean, I ... I can’t do that,” he said. “I can’t go into a game and say, ‘I need to play well or else.’ I’m a guy that was a seventh-round pick. I’ve waited for an opportunity for a long time, and now I have this opportunity.
“I understand what happens in the NFL. I understand that it’s a performance-based business for quarterbacks. You have to win games or else. I understand all that. I appreciate this opportunity as much as anybody, because I had to wait a long time to get it.
“This is my shot,” he added. “This is everything I’ve worked for. And I know that it’s either going to work here, or that’s going to be it.”
He sounds like a man with no illusions. Fitzpatrick seems grateful to have gotten a chance as a starter in Buffalo, one he might not have been given anywhere else. He knows he was fortunate to find a team that was so desperate for a franchise quarterback, a real leader, that it would tolerate his obvious physical shortcomings.
I’ll admit I have a soft spot for the guy. Fitzpatrick has gotten more out of his ability than any Bills quarterback since Doug Flutie. He has a lot of the intangibles. He’s a good teammate, a leader, a bright and engaging face of the franchise. He’s not afraid of the big moment; he simply doesn’t have the big, accurate arm to go with it.
“I’m confident,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of doubt outside. I sat down with Stevie [Johnson] and Donald [Jones] and Brad [Smith] and a couple of the guys. I let them know, confidence is such a big thing as a quarterback, and as an NFL player in general. And when I’m on the field, I have 100 percent confidence in them, and I need to make sure they have 100 percent confidence in me.”
It’s hard to have confidence when Fitz throws a pass more than 10 yards in the air. Coming into the season, I felt he was good enough to get them to the playoffs, assuming the defense was greatly improved. I still feel that way. The defense has been a much bigger disappointment. But it always comes back to the quarterback. A franchise QB makes everything possible. Look at the Colts.
Fitz has had his moments. For a 16-game stretch, he played like a franchise guy. But ultimately, he ascended to franchise status by default, because of the Bills’ prolonged management dysfunction. He got a contract that reflected his stature at the time. It wasn’t outlandish. The Bills had saved money on the QB position for years. They could afford it.
The problem isn’t Fitz’s deal. It was failing to identify a successor. Nix said they would draft a 10-year franchise guy if they could. They would have taken Cam Newton. So it’s no shock that, two years later, Nix would reiterate the need for a long-term solution at the position.
The more they dragged their feet, the greater their need to believe in Fitz in the short term. Gailey has no choice but to defend him in public. But it must be getting harder. It was stunning when Gailey abandoned the run last week in Houston. But it was even more troubling that the Bills didn’t take shots downfield.
So yes, they need to draft a franchise quarterback. But it’s laughable for Nix to talk as if it’s the last missing piece in the puzzle. Go ahead, make it about Fitz. Maybe people won’t notice that Nix has made a mess of the whole darn thing.